As the localized food movement picks up steam, city dwellers have to get creative in order to jump on board. Luckily, the D.C. region is fairly ahead of the curve when it comes to one component that provides fresh, local produce – the farmers’ market.
But the surge in farmers markets has created a new dynamic for farmers and vendors, and some have even seen a decrease in sales.
Bob Wollam owns the flower garden Wollam Gardens in Jeffersonton, Va., and sells cut flowers to area markets and stores. He said he’s noticed a drop in sales at farmers markets, but an increase at Whole Foods. With the growing popularity of farmers markets, Wollam said it’s becoming “more than can be supported by all these farmers.”
In addition to Glover Park, Wollam has vendors at Penn Quarter, Arlington, Bethesda, Dupont Circle and Tri-County markets. Out of those seven, Wollam reports sales are down at six of them.
“There has just been an incredible proliferation of farmers markets,” he said.
Will Morrow, who used to sell his farm-raised chicken, lamb, goats and rabbit at several markets, has pared down his sites to just Glover Park. Instead, most of the food from Whitmore Farm is now sold to restaurants. Morrow said he still works the Glover Park market because it’s one of his favorites and “I do like interacting with the public.”
Though he doesn’t participate in too many, Morrow said he thinks the surge of farmers markets is a bonus for customers because it fuels competition, ultimately netting a better product for consumers.
“It raises the bar for quality, they get more choices,” he said.
Morrow was the new farmer on the block several years ago, when he was working to get the Whitmore Farm name out. And the markets really helped him in that endeavor.
“I view them as small-business incubators,” he said. “You can experiment with different products and packaging. It’s the chance to test the marketplace.”
For example, Morrow said he was unsure how customers would respond to rabbit meat, which turned out to be a top seller.
“It was an invaluable learning experience,” he said.
Now, with markets popping up all over, Morrow said new, small-scale farms would have the chance to participate.
However, with farmers markets becoming accessible to virtually every neighborhood in the region, each one strives for its individuality to keep consumers coming back.
Saturday’s clear skies and sunny weather provided the perfect backdrop for the Glover Park-Burleith market, where kids marveled at a magician, families listened to live bluegrass music, and just about everyone sampled the available harvest. In its third year, market staff members have employed new techniques to create a neighborhood atmosphere at the Glover Park market, and to turn the weekly event into a sort of meeting place.
“We try to bring as many special events as we can so we can attract the different demographics in town,” said Lauren Shweder Biel, executive director of DC Greens, which runs the Glover Park market.
“Our numbers are steadily increasing, but the number of farmers markets in DC is exponentially increasing.”
Besides the music and entertainment, Biel’s market also uses a variety of lunch trucks to attract customers.
“We’re always coming up with ways to draw people to market,” she said. “No [farm managers] can be complacent in that.”
But ultimately, people come to farmers markets for the food. Biel said it’s definitely a concern if vendors are reporting sluggish sales.
“I think I worry about that every single week,” she said. “I work extremely hard to make sure that we’re getting the word out about the amazing products that they’re bringing.”
So getting creative and adding special events to the farmers market repertoire is becoming essential.
“None of us are the only act in town,” she added.
For now at least, it seems farmers will have to learn to juggle the many area markets, as the desire for local produce shows no sign of cooling off any time soon, Biel and Morrow said.
“It’s occurring nationally, people are becoming more mindful of their eating habits and how it affects their health and animal welfare,” Morrow said.
“If you buy local, that means more often than not, you’ll be purchasing from small family farms that tend to farm more sustainably and they’re not going to rely on a lot of heavy chemicals. If you just focus on local, everything else kind of comes along with it.”
And in the D.C. region, the mecca for fresh, local food is the farmers market, which continues to grow in popularity, whether or not farmers can keep up.
“I don’t think it’s reached its peak,” Morrow said. “The demand is really, really high.”